Sea of Darkness

The Hand of Satan on the Sea of Darkness, from Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and of Sailors, by Fletcher S. Bassett, published in 1885.

The Mediterranean Sea was the entire navigable world for the ancient civilizations that existed on its shores. Greeks and Romans ventured out to war and returned with plunder but seldom navigated further. It was a sea of unpredictable weather and inscrutable natural phenomena inhabited by frightening sea creatures, horrid giants, mysterious sea gods and enchanting sirens luring sailors to their fates. Mermaids and monsters abounded.

Homer's Odyssey, the first great sea epic, perpetuated the myths of perils encountered or imagined by the early mariners of the Med. The ancient Greeks believed that Sicily was as far west as a ship could travel due to unseen and imagined dangers. Gradually sailors ventured west toward Gibraltar and the Great Western Ocean.

Gibraltar then came to be thought as the end of the world, a point where ships could not pass. Arab navigators reported that great stone pillars topped with a brass statues were inscribed with warnings that Gibraltar was the limit of navigation and that no vessels could proceed into the sea of darkness.

The Great Western Ocean, while known, was thought to be a sea of death, more like a river, flowing around the world. Persians reported the ocean to be too shallow; a sea of mud. Homer's Odysseus claimed to have seen a mysterious island of ship destroying whirlwinds.  Plato said that whole continents had disappeared into the Atlantic. It was excessively salty, full of beasts and sea monsters, according to other Greeks.

Carthaginian sailors, who were more adventurous, told of shallow water and floating seaweed that made the Atlantic unnavigable. This myth persisted until the time of Columbus when his crew was frightened while becalmed amid the Sargasso Sea.

Greek sailors also declared the Red Sea off limits due to shallow water and its red color, thought to be dangerous.

In 1330 the French discoverers of the Canary Islands reported that a colossal giant there brandished a club, threatening all who would foolishly venture westward. The huge hand of satan rising from the water was ready to seize any vessel venturing out on the Sea of Darkness, according to arab navigators.

Surely, most of these beliefs and myths persisted because of the proprietary interest that sea captains and ship owners had in navigational information. Ports of call, trade routes and the profits to be made were kept secret, or sold for a price to others.